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Rappler co-founder Maria Ressa discusses the political situation in the Philippines ahead of the country’s May 13 midterm elections, the first test of Rodrigo Duterte’s continuing hold on popularity. By Margaret Simons.

Journalist Maria Ressa and the Philippine election

Rappler co-founder Maria Ressa.
Credit: Dave Tacon

Maria Ressa asserts that her “natural resting face” carries a smile – despite the fact she is sleep-deprived, needs personal security, has had to send her parents away for their safety and faces the possibility of spending the rest of her life in a Philippine jail.

“I like Buddhism more than Christianity,” she says. “There are four noble truths, and the first noble truth is that all life is suffering. And if you accept that all life is suffering, then everything is good. I am not kidding. It really works!”

Ressa, 55, physically tiny and perpetually animated, was last year named by Time magazine as its person of the year, along with other journalists under siege in their home countries.

As co-founder and executive editor of the Manila-based news service Rappler, she has angered Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte and found herself facing not only 11 charges of libel and tax evasion but also an organised campaign of “violence” on social media.

Ressa spoke with The Saturday Paper ahead of the Philippine midterm elections on May 13 – the first test of Duterte’s continuing hold on public popularity.

For the loose coalition of parties opposed to him, the polls suggest it will be a wipeout. None of the “straight eight” of Liberal Party-aligned senate candidates are likely to win a seat. Instead, candidates supported by Duterte are expected to win control of the senate, which until now has been the main check on the president’s power.

Ressa believes the election is the most important in the Philippines’ recent history. The country will change after this, she says, and it may take a generation “for the world to turn right side up again”.

For many Filipinos, Facebook is synonymous with the internet. There are more mobile phones than citizens, and 97 per cent of Filipinos connected to the internet have a Facebook account. Ressa describes the Philippines as being at “the pointy end of the arrow” in the use of social media – particularly Facebook – in the undermining of civil society and liberal democracies.

Since Duterte came to power in 2016, there has been an organised campaign of misinformation that continues today, with critics and rival politicians denounced by a network of websites, amplified by Duterte-aligned mainstream media and the government’s communications staff.

Says Ressa, social media is not the cause but the “accelerant” in a cascade of misinformation that has entered the political discourse “like injecting fentanyl … into the body politic”. The mainstream media has lost the battle for public attention and trust.

Part of the reason for the current issues facing the country’s democracy, Ressa says, is that the people-power revolution was never properly embedded. There was no truth and reconciliation process once Ferdinand Marcos was gone. Today, Marcos’s daughter, Imee, is one of the candidates likely to win a senate spot in the midterms.

Facebook has recently declared the Philippine election a high priority for its escalating attempts to combat fake news and manipulation of civic discourse. “We have dedicated teams working on upcoming elections around the world, including the Philippines,” a Facebook spokesperson confirmed to The Saturday Paper, saying their plan includes working with third-party fact checkers.

Rappler is one of these fact-checking partners. But fact checking alone is not enough, says Ressa – “It is like playing Whac-A-Mole.” More important is the effort to understand and trace the misinformation networks.

The Rappler newsroom is an open-plan room with polished concrete floors, balloons in the company’s trademark orange, and glass-walled meeting rooms scrawled with notes – audience strategies, lists of stories to be pursued, reporters’ names and coffee orders. The stringent security is the only clue this is not some hip Silicon Valley-style tech company.

There are between 80 and 100 journalists employed here at any one time. The journalism is a mix of investigative reports, news and lifestyle. The audience is younger than that for most mainstream media outlets – with the typical “Rappler” being between 18 and 35.

The reason for the heavy security is that a Duterte-supporting blogger recently invaded the office and live-streamed a call to his followers to come to the office and shoot Rappler’s journalists. Facebook took down the live-stream – after a day.

Ressa is a dual United States–Philippine citizen, the daughter of two Filipinos. Her natural father died when she was an infant, and she was raised by her mother and stepfather, an Italian–American. In 1972, at the beginning of martial law under Marcos, when Ressa was nine, the family moved from the Philippines to New Jersey.

So began a crisis of identity. “We landed in December. It was really cold. I was the shortest kid in public school. At one point I wanted blonde hair because there was no one like me,” she says. “I never felt really American. I knew I wanted to come back to the Philippines.”

In her senior year at Princeton, Ressa applied for a Fulbright scholarship to study political theatre in the Philippines. Once in Manila she instead “fell” into journalism. It was 1986, in the wake of the people-power revolution that deposed Marcos. A new constitution was being written. “It was a very exciting, optimistic time,” she recalls.

Ressa worked for CNN in Manila and then across south-east Asia, before deciding to make the Philippines her permanent home. She joined one of the country’s biggest television networks, ABS-CBN, which has also been attacked by Duterte and threatened with non-renewal of its licence.

Ressa founded Rappler first as a Facebook page in 2011, on a foundation of optimism about the power of social media to “cascade information” and allow good journalism to regain its power as a trusted source and brand. The name is a combination of the words “rap”, as in to talk, and ripple, as in to make waves.

Rappler grew quickly – by 2016, when Duterte was elected, it was scoring up to 40 million views a month. Sixty per cent of revenue came from native advertising – editorial features written to promote products. Other money came from grants and donations, mostly from overseas, including one from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Australia, to build an information platform for use in natural disasters.

Then the attacks began and advertising fell away. Shortly afterwards came the libel actions – a single case from a businessman that has now metastasised, followed by tax evasion charges, which also multiplied.

Money set aside for a platform rebuild was spent on legal fees. Ressa and her fellow founders took a 20 per cent pay cut. As advertising decreased, Rappler “pivoted” to sales of its expertise and tech products. Ressa has also begun a paid “Rappler Plus” service, members of which get video chats with her and background to the stories published on the site.

Under Duterte’s presidency, “violence both real and virtual has become part of the air we breathe”, says Ressa. She is grateful she doesn’t have children, and she urged her parents to return to the US for safety. And though she could escape her current dilemma by returning to America – “my other home” – that would mean abandoning Rappler and her staff. She feels her profile, to some extent, protects them.

In another sense she also feels her entire career has brought her to this point. “I am a Filipino with American values,” she says, “and an American with Filipino values. I am very clear about my values and that makes me strong.”

“I am not a fool,” she says of the charges raised against her, although she regards them as “ridiculous”. “I know how this ends.”

In all its legal battles so far, Rappler has won only one trick – its motions have all been denied, its legal submissions unsuccessful, except for that on a complaint of cyberlibel. This was dismissed by the National Bureau of Investigations in February 2018 for lack of basis. However, the next month the same authority revived the complaint.

She thinks it may take years, and she hopes for justice from the courts. "I still have hope that the judiciary will win their individual battles for integrity," she says. But it could also end badly. “I could also be arrested tomorrow on a charge for which there is no bail.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 11, 2019 as "The woman calling out Duterte abuses". Subscribe here.

Margaret Simons
is a freelance journalist, author and associate professor of journalism at Monash University. Her biography of Senator Penny Wong will be published by Black Inc later this year.